A little country theater has big ambitions

When actors Susan Neal and Bob Pettee decided to leave Manhattan and start their own theater, the husband and wife team settled on the small community of Saranac Lake, N.Y.

"Our budget the first year was $500," she says, laughing. Now, as they enter their 20th season, the Pendragon Theatre is celebrating that milestone by presenting a world premire starring acclaimed actress Julie Harris.

In the center of upstate New York, halfway between Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, the town's recreation and camping facilities attract thousands to this Adirondack Mountain region each summer.

But the theater Ms. Neal and Mr. Pettee created, with an annual budget that has grown to $175,000, operates year-round, catering not only to tourists, but to the town's residents who support the arts here.

The couple returns the favor. "They do so much" for the community, says Ms. Harris, seated on the stone porch of her temporary residence overlooking the lake, "like displaying the works of local painters and sculptors, and setting up teaching programs. It's very impressive."

By choosing more-challenging and rarely produced works, the Pendragon has carved a niche in the world of small regional theaters, where popular comedies and musical revivals are the standard fare.

They staked out this bolder artistic territory from the start, choosing Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," presented in the dead of winter, no less, to launch their enterprise. Subsequent years have included productions of "True West," "Threepenny Opera," and "Dancing at Lughnasa."

The 1999 season featured Paula Vogel's "Baltimore Waltz," Alan Ayckbourn's "Communicating Doors," and "Many Moons," a children's play from James Thurber. Harris stars this month in the theater's 115th production "Amber Patches," by Peter Dee. It's the play's first staging.

The theater, renovated from an abandoned small factory, seats just under 100. Its lobby displays the work of local artists and historic town photos. A covered veranda running the length of the theater welcomes patrons during intermission.

"It can be primitive," Harris says, smiling, contrasting conditions here with Broadway theaters. "You all share a dressing room, men and women. But on balance, it doesn't matter, because they are doing something special in this community. People appreciate what they do...."

Some audiences are deeply affected by the productions. Take Barbara Lebow's "A Shayna Maidel," an acclaimed drama staged in 1989. It chronicled the struggles of a Jewish family at the end of World War II.

"Some audience members had had family in concentration camps or had been in them themselves," Neal recalls. "People were weeping, and would line up at the dressing room door to thank the actors."

Casts are put together using regional talent supplemented by New York City actors picked in auditions in the spring. "Three of the New York actors have asked to be part of our fall production, and we're delighted...." Neal says.

One of those actors, Justin Heneveld, comments, "It's great for a young actor to become associated with a theater like Pendragon because I get to do serious roles - and enjoy the beautiful surroundings here."

Neal points out that "when we moved into this theater, the community all pitched in and helped us renovate it within a month, to be ready in time for the opening." The mayor even spent time vacuuming the carpets.

The theater, in turn, brings tourists to the region year after year, benefiting merchants, shopkeepers, and the owners of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.

Plays are offered in repertory from early June through the end of October, permitting someone to visit for the weekend and see three different productions. Two classic plays, presented in the fall and the spring, along with various educational programs, complete the year.

Four years ago, Neal and Pettee took a play to Scotland's Edinburgh Festival, which hosts hundreds of events each summer. When they returned, Neal floated the idea for a similar project.

This fall, the Festival of the Lakes entered its fourth year, using not only the theater but cafes, church basements, and outdoor stages as venues for jazz, Latin music, comedy, and dance.

"I want us to increase our work with new plays," Neal concludes. The Julie Harris project resulted in sold-out houses for its entire run. And with the audiences growing each year, "we might need to consider a larger space. But there's so much emotion attached [to the current playhouse].... It has a warmth and an intimacy that audiences and actors seem to love."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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